The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is underway, and the United States women’s national team’s defense of their title is off to the best possible start. Their first group stage game was a 13-0 victory against Thailand that shattered scoring records and reinforced the perception that Jill Ellis’ side is the team to beat. The team followed it with a 3-0 stroll against Chile. The team was listed as co-favorites before the World Cup began on June 7 and have lived up to the tag.
Interest in the team’s progress is high, illustrated by the ratings from the win against Thailand — Fox Sports’ strongest since the 2018 final of the men’s World Cup. The ratings, in part, have been fostered by the emergence of digital media as a promotional tool, and it has coincided with the USWNT’s resurgence as the premier international women’s soccer side.
The spotlight fell on Twitter usage, in particular, during previous World Cups. The platform has become an essential communication tool in light of the downturn in traditional media.
Twitter prepared for this World Cup by introducing the #GoldenTweet Awards in addition to a #FIFAWWC hashtag and individualized hashtags for each of the 24 participating nations. The #GoldenTweet Awards will see Twitter’s analytics team cull the most popular tweets from 13 countries, and the winners will receive a limited-edition Twitter bird trophy.
Despite a protracted evolution, strides have been made by the United States Soccer Federation — better known as U.S. Soccer — to champion its women’s team and its push toward a record fourth World Cup win.
The federation unveiled a new app and website geared toward boosting the fan experience and attempting to set up soccer as the United States’ leading sport. The free app contains exclusive content for both the men’s and women’s teams, but central to the mobile experience is the “WNT Everywhere” campaign. Engineered to “increase the WNT players (sic) visibility” as they prepare to defend their World Cup crown, the app comes integrated facial-recognition technology that can unlock special content on the team’s star players.
Eleven murals have gone up in 10 cities across the United States, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. When users point their phones at these murals, the app opens the aforementioned exclusives.
In addition, the federation announced a new website layout with a more streamlined, user-friendly design optimized for mobile devices. It presents an “in-depth focus” on player profiles in addition to more detailed match coverage.
USA Today bolstered its flagship app with the addition of “augmented reality experiences” in advance of the Women’s World Cup. Similar to U.S. Soccer’s focus on player profiles, the “Meet the Team” experience lets users learn about WNT’s top players — all on a virtual field that features the latest results and upcoming matches.
The interactive game “Make the Save” puts users in the driver’s seat as USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher as she attempts to stop penalty kicks. Naeher was interviewed prior to the game’s release and her movements within the game were captured with photogrammetry.
Research from within the past five years indicates where U.S. Soccer and WNT players have come from in terms of promoting the team’s vast achievements. A 2014 study examined how U.S. Soccer presented and covered its women’s team during the 2011 World Cup, in which the side qualified for the final but lost to Japan on penalty kicks.
Former University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill lecturer Roxane Coche looked at how a “patriarchal ideology” pervades American sports, and her contention was this set of ideals contributes to how the mass media tends to overlook women’s sports — or provide only sporadic coverage. There are even concerns over production values on broadcasts.
Coche scrutinized how the federation presented its Twitter coverage of the women’s team as opposed to the men’s team. She found U.S. Soccer’s Twitter managed to reduce somewhat the phenomenon of hypersexualizing female athletes and turned attention toward on-field action and achievements. However, the federation’s main account “posted more about men’s soccer than it did about women’s… most pictures and web pages tweeted pertained to male soccer” even during the Women’s World Cup. This contributed to a perception that the women’s game was treated as a “niche product” in spite of the USWNT’s run to the final.
The study “23 Players, 23 Voices: An Examination of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team on Twitter During the 2015 World Cup” discussed female athletes’ self-promotion and presentation during a tournament of sufficient magnitude to warrant increased interest. In recent years, the athlete has emerged as the primary influencer and thus reduced reliance on public relations departments and mainstream media outlets. With the relatively piecemeal coverage offered to women’s soccer by mass media, members of the USWNT sometimes have to find a way to stand out.
Using the qualitative data analysis software NVivo 10, researchers Molly Hayes Sauder and Matthew Blaszka captured 2,612 tweets from all 23 players on the USWNT’s 2015 World Cup team. The researchers collected tweets over a 90-day period. These 90 days were broken up into three 30-day sections before, during and after the tournament. There was relatively equal tweet distribution during this period, with 33 percent of tweets sent prior to the first game in Canada, 30 percent over the course of the World Cup and 37 percent after the final.
Hayes Sauder and Blaszka broke down tweets into several categories which represented direct interactions with fans, comments on non-sports topics, sponsorship promotion and discussion of other sports. The researchers found the players seemed to prefer “a candid approach to communication as opposed to a polished performance” on their Twitter accounts, even as tweet frequency varied wildly. The study corroborated Coche’s findings as it pertained to U.S. Soccer’s focus on the women’s team through a separate account rather than the more widely-followed main account.
With all the buzz surrounding this Women’s World Cup, there is a chance to drive engagement and record social media analytics unlike any seen before in the women’s game. Renewed awareness will really boost a form of soccer that deserves more attention in the United States and worldwide.
Jeremy Beren is a senior sports journalism major at Arizona State University